A solitary consciousness, crying out from the surging swell, but using no words: this is the nature of the quiet desperation at the heart of human experience. Does the loneliness sneak up on you? Are you uncomfortably made aware, on the morning commute, of the unavoidable isolation of being conscious? It seems an irony befitting a race that sees its death approaching from earliest youth, like a mountain that anchors every landscape view, no matter where you stand.
But even if we couldn’t see death’s approach, would we do things any differently? It’s a legitimate question. I don’t know that I would watch any less or any more Netflix, or indulge any less or any more in the things I routinely indulge in (hello, Reese’s cups). Would I bother writing? Or is there something about that pale horse and its bony rider that compels me to document these ranging thoughts; to labor away, in the pre-dawn hours, at fiction and at memoiristic meditations on the poetry of Rilke? Probably, on some elemental level, there is something of the dread behind these efforts.
Yesterday I was driving home from my eldest son’s piano lesson, and the sunset caught the trees in such a way that the part of me that responds to art welled up of its own accord (the “of its own accord” part is necessary–it’s how I know I’m in the presence of great art). My first impulse was to take a picture, but I was driving, and I knew that my phone couldn’t capture the true essence of the sunset anyway. So then I thought about how often our first impulse in the presence of beauty is to try and capture it, and then I was hit with the sadness of our inability to do just that. Isn’t there just so much that we wish to do, but we can’t? Beauty can’t be bottled, and there aren’t enough Instagram filters to make an experience communicable to another person. There’s a tremendous sadness in this.
It’s thirteen minutes past eleven p.m., and I could sleep, but I’m too stubborn. Because there’s still a capacity for wakefulness in this winter-weary body.* Winter-weary–yeah, right, says the New Englander or the Michigander. How is a Tennessean winter-weary? Because for three nights out of the past five, I have slept in a hotel in my own town, away from my wife, away from my kids, all because there’s a possibility that sideroads may be treacherous and impassable. This is life when it snows or, more accurately, ice-storms in Nashville. Trucks brine the interstate; people with buckets scatter blue salt over concrete stairs and isolated parking lots; and the administration at the laboratory where I process cancerous tissue five days a week takes the initiative to ensure its workforce’s safety and its capacity to perform its important job by generously providing hotel rooms for those of us able to stay. Every specimen is a patient. I never forget the human at the other end of the tissue that I’m processing, because I know that we are all grasping for our lives and for the lives of those we love. We cling to this vapor of earthly existence, no matter what we believe about the hereafter. If we humans unite behind anything, it is this: we’re all trying to stay alive. This is our impulse. Perhaps it’s the purest instinct. And we don’t let go of it until there are no other options; until it’s wrested from our slack hands.
How does one not think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in a post like this? So I cling to consciousness, because it’s my impulse, even though I should be sleeping. I didn’t inherit that napping gene that brings so much joy to others (neither did my oldest son). I stay awake until I no longer can. It will take its toll later in the week, when I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30 on Friday night. But for now I soldier on, writing this blog post, thinking about how rarely we have a good snow in middle Tennessee, about how people lose their minds when the temperature drops below freezing, and about how we’re all together (even though we don’t always like each other) in this endeavor of life.
*Winter-weariness is not altogether bad. I’ve written elsewhere that I often feel more alive in winter. Weariness can coexist with contentment, it seems.
On a cloudy day in late December, I find the whitened blue-gray of winter distances soothing. The tree-covered hills of Middle Tennessee, bowed like the backs of ancient wanderers huddling on the edge of town, work a strange, restful magic on the eyes. And then the early dusk: how the blue-gray deepens; how the ends of bare limbs silhouette into thousands of gnarled and knobby fingers, heaving here-and-there in the brashness of bitter breezes–the kinds of breezes we’re never dressed for, so we hurry from the car to the great indoors, where our bones ache a few minutes more.
All these things conspire to the mystery of winter. I know no dread of a long night, only the embrace of a cavernous, comfortable dark, one that welcomes introverted sojourning, where I cocoon myself in flannel and plaid and lamplight. Winter makes many think of death, but doesn’t it also somehow make you feel more alive? Is it because I was born in January, that I have this drive?
Our Tennessee cold spells never last long; perhaps if I had a Michigan address, winter would be more of an inconvenience. But for now, living as I do in the humid South, I get excited when I hear the temperature is dropping. Will anyone else claim this?